Archer Prewitt, Inc.
For most of his dual career, artist and musician Archer Prewitt has shrunk from the spotlight. He's made a living as an illustrator, realizing other people's ideas, and as a cog in the Marvel Comics machine, coloring Spider-Man and Barbie panels. And in a decade and a half of making music, primarily with the Coctails and the Sea and Cake, he's spent a lot of time playing other people's songs. But slowly, over the past few years, that's begun to change. His two Sof' Boy comic books--stories about a happy-go-lucky white blob who retains his good cheer no matter how brutal the mishaps that befall him--have become a staple of the underground comics scene, and his second solo album, White Sky (on the local Carrot Top label), hit the shelves on Tuesday. "There's a part of me that's really shy and embarrassed, you know--'it's the Archer Prewitt album,'" he says, affecting a slight shudder. "But in the end, my wanting the music to have an audience is overriding."
Prewitt, 36, moved to Chicago in 1991 with the Coctails, an eclectic, Martin Denny-crazy quartet he joined in art school in Kansas City. By the time the lounge revival hit, they'd moved on to less kitschy, more modern pop, and when the band split up in 1995, after issuing four albums, half a dozen singles, and boatloads of handmade merchandise, Prewitt was ensconced as a guitarist in the Sea and Cake. But immediately after that quartet, led by former Shrimp Boat singer Sam Prekop, finished recording its fourth album, The Fawn, in October 1996, Prewitt returned to the studio to make his first solo album, In the Sun, a collection of elegant pop gems that came out the next summer. He'd written his share of the Coctails' repertoire, but only a couple of songs for the Sea and Cake, and he didn't feel that was enough.
"I had a backlog of songs, and I was frustrated that I had no voice," he says. "I wanted to document them and I just figured the best way to do that was to make a record." He wasn't even sure he'd release it, but he says the process was crucial to his development as a songwriter. He assembled a hodgepodge of backing musicians--former Coctails Mark Greenberg on bass and John Upchurch on guitar and bass clarinet, Poi Dog Pondering regulars Steve Goulding on drums, Dave Max Crawford on keyboards and trumpet, and Paul Mertens on reeds, and even fellow cartoonist Chris Ware on piano--and although the results ranged from sensitive, introspective ballads to horn-and-string-swaddled pop tunes to low-key funk, collectively they did reveal an overall style that was distinct from the Coctails' schizophrenia or the hypnotic cool of the Sea and Cake.
After four months of touring with the Sea and Cake, Prewitt hit the road for several more weeks last spring to support the solo album, and more than half of the tunes played by the group--trimmed to Prewitt with Greenberg, Goulding, Crawford, and Mertens--were new ones. Pleased with the sound of things, Prewitt shepherded the band into a recording studio two days after they got home, and those sessions became the foundation of White Sky, a far more cogent, sophisticated album than his debut. It took months to bring to fruition the meticulously beautiful arrangements he worked out with Mertens. "It was like giving birth to a giant boulder, and I couldn't even work out ten songs," he says (the record contains nine). "But I feel really good about it."
Many of the arrangements involve lush string-and-horn parts, but they're not merely ornamental. On the album's opener, "Raise on High," which is built on droney guitar strumming, they're the meat, unfolding into surprising counterpoint and propulsive polyrhythms. "It's not because I have ork-pop leanings that I'm trying to slather that stuff on every tune," Prewitt says. "I just think it comes down to what the songs suggest." In fact, on the whole the music here is considerably tougher than on In the Sun. "I do want to rock more these days," he says. "I don't always want to write the sensitive artist songs, 'cause I like Led Zeppelin as much as I like Nick Drake. You just get tired of a wimpy presentation; you just want to kick some ass." White Sky has a decidedly 70s art-rock vibe, and as Prewitt admits, "There is some wankery on this album."
What hasn't changed is Prewitt's puritan work ethic. In this last year he's recorded and toured with Sam Prekop's solo project, and he's in the midst of producing a new album by Tsunami's Jenny Toomey and writing a third Sof' Boy, due from Drawn and Quarterly early next spring. He's also doing the occasional freelance illustration gig, preparing for a five-week tour in support of White Sky, and overseeing the production of some new Sof' Boy merchandise--rings, vinyl dolls, T-shirts, and possibly bedsheets--for sale in Japan, where despite its unavailability in translated form, the comic is quite popular. "The culture in Japan is into anything that isn't offensive and that's kind of cutesy, so I think Sof' Boy appeals to them, just another happy little character," he says.
It's the first time he's allowed anyone besides his mother, who lives in Iowa and helps him sew cloth Sof' Boy dolls, to produce his merchandise, and he still puts in countless hours on the calendars, T-shirts, balloons, and postcards that he advertises in the comic books. Prewitt, who majored in printmaking in college, likes his art to be affordable, so he treats his merch as art.
"I'm still into that element of fun, although in the end it's not that fun for me to package all of this stuff and send it off to people and to be on top of mail order while I'm trying to do all these other things," he says. "It's almost like I'm driven to do it, even though it's not in my best interest. I'm slow to learn."
Prewitt opens for Pavement on Friday at the Vic, and his official record-release party is slated for Saturday, November 6, at Lounge Ax.
Witches & Devils, the galvanic Albert Ayler tribute band led by Mars Williams, will be joined by superb trumpeter Hugh Ragin, a frequent collaborator of Roscoe Mitchell and David Murray, at HotHouse on Thursday, October 21.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Brad Miller.